Tonight is the last night of the trip I took to visit my grandfather and namesake. Ralph Major, as some of my friends call him, is 96 years old with another ten years of life in him. He lived through the Great Depression, dropped bombs on Okinawa in WWII, and is now reflecting peacefully in his home in Minnesota as he nears the end of his natural life. He finds pleasure in simple things -- he has about twenty bird feeders on his property and an encyclopedic knowledge of every winged creature that uses them; he smokes a cigar by the fire every night it's cold enough; he stubbornly takes care of his property despite the fact he'll probably fall off a ladder and die while doing so.
While I was visiting, his neighbor Reid and I did some yard work for him. Reid is a wonderful guy -- 70 year old retired paramedic, artist, 3 years sober, etc. He always has a dog that he lets run free (given this is semi-rural Minnesota) and takes regular breaks from hard work to smoke a pipe and ruminate. While Reid and I were transplanting trees, he imparted some knowledge on me that taught me more about the world than three years of college has so far.
We spoke about (and performed) a Native American ritual that imparts good spirits into plants as we planted them. You lay out a presentable "dish" -- a sightly leaf, a piece of wood, etc. and sprinkle some tobacco on it. After doing so, you ask the six natural forces (winds from the four cardinal directions, mother earth, father sky) to bless the plant, then sing a song that was surprisingly easy to pick up despite being in another language. After your dinner later in the evening, you bring a small amount of food out and bury it next to the plant as an offering.
We performed the ritual I described for every plant we put in the ground that day. In between working and blessing, Reid and I took time to sit, puff on pipes, and speak about life. Admittedly, being jaded from growing up in what we currently call a society, I was reluctant to enjoy any of this at first. After a bit of elbowing on Reid's part, he wore me down and I set aside my cynicism and spoke to him about life.
One thing we agreed upon was reincarnation. I personally don't believe a god exists that would send you to hell for eternity due to a lifetime of sinning; instead, he'd probably put you in the body of an ant, worm, or punish you with some other equally humbling experience. On the other hand, Reid believes in the Native American theory of reincarnation: when you die, your soul splits into four pieces and roots itself in four different things. He told me, for example, that when speaking to old trees, you use native tongues, but when speaking to new trees, you speak English. I personally hadn't heard of this before and it gave me pause for thought. Something to ruminate on.
Reid spoke to me about his time as a paramedic. He worked the job for forty-plus years, and presumably saved thousands of lives. I didn't ask. He told me he'd go straight from his landscaping side jobs to working the ambulance (or "the rig," as he referred to it). He'd administer IVs with his hands still covered in dirt. "Probably gave them a lot of good bacteria they were lacking," he said. We spoke about sterilization and super bacteria briefly. He thinks MRSA et. al. are the first warning signs of the dangerous future of Western medicine, something that will become the norm as our treatments stray further from nature. Something to ruminate on.
We spoke with each other about stealing. I personally have no qualms shoplifting from corporate stores as long as it doesn't affect the employees working there. Who gives a shit if the 7-11 corporation loses $0.89 because I didn't pay for a slushie? Ried agreed. According to him, he'd "been stealing for most of [his] life." In his days working as a paramedic, he hardly had enough money to live. Instead of buying meat, he'd listen to the scanner in "the rig" for reports of fresh roadkill deer. When one came in, he and his partner would drive to the scene "faster than we'd ever drive to any call." He'd surreptitiously load the dead deer into the ambulance and take it home to cook and eat. Reid asked me what I felt like when I stole. I wasn't sure what he meant by that. He elaborated: "stealing is good for the body -- it requires you to be on highest alert possible because of the consequences. When you're using all your senses that acutely, you're truly in touch with the would around you." Something to ruminate on.
Ried is also an artist. He currently paints, but has worked in a variety of mediums. Due to undiagnosed Lyme disease, a history of alcoholism, and a recent woodworking accident, he can't feel his hands and is missing an eye. Ried told me, "I started losing feeling in my hands and I thought I wouldn't be able to paint any more. I lost my eye, I almost died, I thought I wouldn't be able to paint any more. My paintings are better than ever." Something to ruminate on.
I don't know what the moral to all this is. Over the course of an afternoon/evening, I was exposed to a lot of knowledge that made me stop and think about where I was in the world. The generations before me, my lack of mindfulness and motivation, different ways of looking at life here on Earth. I don't have any through line for this story. I suppose I just want to catalogue events that have given me reason to slow down, think, and truly reflect for the first time in a while.